Will the Doctor Win Over Artificial Intelligence?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Natasha Sharma, a 4th Year medical student from Gauhati Medical College, Assam, India. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Telemedicine has been available for more than a decade now. However, it created a niche for itself in the healthcare industry during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The last couple of years saw both minor and elective consultations taking a backseat in both developed and developing nations due to a lack of enough healthcare staff to manage the pandemic, and the public’s fear of seeking healthcare from institutions actively treating and admitting COVID-19 patients. This gap between the health service providers and the recipients was fortunately or unfortunately, exploited by several third parties. Major pharmaceutical corporations, multi-centric hospital and diagnostic chains teamed up with software firms and started offering affordable, easily accessible healthcare from the comfort of their homes, with a click on the internet.

E-health became an overnight success and go-to choice for a large proportion of the population in developing countries like India, where the public healthcare system was already overburdened. Several patients, like victims of abuse, people suffering from mental health issues, both of which were on the rise in the pandemic, who otherwise would have never come in contact with the medical system either due to stigma, or lack of resources or awareness on how to obtain medical aid, were able to reach out to a healthcare professional. The prospect of working from the safety of their homes, avoiding PPE and the infection risks, and getting paid handsomely for their consultation was ludicrous enough for several hundreds of doctors to join these platforms. Many took on the responsibility over and above their day jobs, some for the benefit, while several volunteered free.

Telemedicine made advances in leaps and bounds with respect to ease of access, technology, and most importantly, the increased assistance by artificial intelligence (AI) to evaluate patients, identify and pinpoint details that may otherwise be missed by humans. While this works mostly in favour of the patient, a question here arises are we better off or worse due to this assistance, or in some cases, undue interference. AI may overdiagnose cases where there is nothing to worry about and create unnecessary panic and mental duress to the patient and raise questions on the doctor’s credibility. Another important issue being overlooked is the tendency of digital service providers to record and store their service interactions. As these teleconsultations are being conducted via third-party servers, the principle of bioethics concerning confidentiality and doctor-patient privilege gets breached. What transpired in a consultation is recorded and saved for a long time, in some cases, for posterity, under the terms of “for quality and training purposes”.

While digital medicine did save lives and promoted social distancing, with almost no legal framework and internationally accepted regulations governing it, measures need to be taken to ensure patient confidentiality and the quality and competency of the technology aiding this breakthrough movement. Nevertheless, it needs to be remembered and prospective patients should be reminded that e-medicine couldn’t be superior to a doctor’s clinical examination and telemedicine is not the cure, but the Band-Aid.

About the author

Natasha Sharma is a 4th Year medical student from Gauhati Medical College, Assam, India. She was a member of UNESCO-MSAI Bioethics Unit for last term, and she is currently the Chairperson of the Bioethics Unit at Rotaract Club of the Caduceus, youth wing of the Rotary Club of Bombay Central. She is passionate about Bioethics, and advocate for sexual and reproductive rights. She is involved in research, and hopes to pursue a future in public health. She loves penning her thoughts down but seldom publishes formal writing. She is an avid reader and reads fiction whenever she can.

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